No one has had a bigger impact on Baltimore dining than restaurateurs Tony Foreman and partner (and ex-wife) Cindy Wolf. The Foreman-Wolf team currently have five restaurants in Baltimore—Petit Louis, Charleston, Pazo, Cinghiale, and the latest, opening this fall, Johnny’s. They are perennially among the best reviewed, most popular fine-dining establishments in town and have raised the bar for Baltimore dining, helping to elevate the city—always in the shadow of D.C.—to world-class.
Since Foreman, who started his career at 14 washing dishes at a Eutaw Street restaurant, has a pretty perfect record of knowing what we like to eat, we figured we’d ask him where he likes to eat, and he had some expected and not-so-expected answers. He’s also bullish on Baltimore dining—and suggests “feelings of inadequacy” lead D.C. critics to slag us off.
City Paper: What’s you favorite place in town to go for Sunday brunch?
Tony Foreman: For brunch, I look for the things I don’t make for myself at home, so it tends to be pretty ethnic. Most of the stuff in town I like is either very old school Baltimore or very quirky kinda stuff. There’s a place on Eastern Avenue, a Mexican place called La Sirenita with an incredibly kitschy interior and a very sorta terrifying plastic menu with all the pictures inside, and there are a handful of dishes that the woman who’s there does incredibly well. I will go back time and time again for those things: the chilaquiles, the quesadilla with pumpkin flowers—those are things that, if it wasn’t 30 minutes away from my house, I would go every Sunday for.
CP: And what are some of the old school Baltimore places you like?
TF: I’m happy to go to Tio Pepe and get the classics, I’m happy to go to Prime Rib and get a steak, get a kick out of the room. One of the things I like about the Rib in particular is that it’s the first restaurant that Rita St. Clair designed, and the design holds up. And knowing her pretty well, I think the design reflects her personality. She’s like an icon of local designers and I get a kick out of walking into that room because it always feels like Rita having a very sexy restaurant moment and, out of affection for her, I get a kick out of that.
CP: Any other ethnic favorites?
TF: It’s not super-ethnic, but if I want to have a really pleasant lunch and bottle of wine and long chat, that sort of thing, I’m very happy to go to Black Olive and get a whole fish and have them dig something interesting out of the wine cellar. They have a bunch of things, a lot of Greek wines; that’s quite fun.
CP: Baltimore seems to have this very striving, underappreciated dining scene. Do you think it’s changed a lot in the last 10 years?
TF: For sure. I’d say it’s accelerated a lot in the last four or five. Striving is the right word. There are more and more people who earnestly are trying to do something in the business, do something particular, do something personal, do something that they’re passionate about. For me, the kid growing up in town who was told, “You can’t do that. You can’t put a bunch of French wines on your list.” When Cindy and I were going to open Savannah [their first local restaurant, in 1995], “You can’t do Southern food, it’s too heavy. People won’t like it.” Or at [Petit] Louis, “You can’t put French names on the menu, or do an all-French wine list.” “Why would you take Charleston and blow up everything that you’re doing, redo the restaurant, and reformat the entire menu? People aren’t going to accept that in Baltimore.” What’s nice in our business is that after many generations of people saying what you can’t do, there’s a generation of young people who are saying, “Why not?” That’s very hopeful for the consumers in the market. They should be supporting people who are taking a shot at things.
CP: Do you think the way food people in other cities perceive Baltimore has changed?
TF: I think it has. The biggest thing that hurts us in terms of national reputation is Washington. Washington has such a low-brow look at Baltimore, there’s such a “we are superior” look at what we offer, it’s remarkable to me. Cindy and I both worked in Washington for a number of years. Baltimore is a more satisfying place to be in the business, regardless of the massive expense accounts and federal money that there is in D.C. to support the restaurants. This is a more satisfying audience to entertain because they actually care about what you’re doing. They’re not talking to each other in their seats while you’re trying to do theater, you know? D.C. is pretty obstructionist as far as our reputation. If you talk to the food writers down there, it’s always, “Well, there’s Bethesda, there’s Baltimore, there’s Annapolis. . .” It’s like, “WHAT? You guys are insane!” Well, they’re not insane. Having worked in D.C. long enough to recognize the feelings of inadequacy that come from being part of that community, I think that’s part of what that is. They have to put down their northern neighbor, who aren’t actually a real place. We actually do something to create tax dollars instead of just spending it.